My family is very small on my mother’s side. My maternal grandparents burst the surly bonds of earth, as the poet says, decades ago.
My mother had only one sister, and they shared a father. My maternal grandmother raised my aunt, but clearly favored her biological child over the precious little girl who came into her life as a toddler. My aunt’s mother tragically died in childbirth after an accident.
My mother’s only sister met a man from Turkey at college. She eventually married the blonde, blue-eyed engineer and spent a decade in the magical country of her husband’s birth.
Turkey is celebrated as the most secular of the Muslim countries; a place where east does indeed met west.
However, I cannot help but ponder – in light of my aunt leaving rural Indiana home — about what Kipling said, “East is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.”
During that decade my mother also left home, graduated from college, married and had her first child. Except for the first four years of life when she lived in Springfield, Illinois, my mother spent the balance of her life in Indiana, never more than 100 miles from the farm her ancestors settled in 1830.
My aunt came back to America with her husband and two young sons in the early 1960s.
The sisters – who had been separated by an ocean – were now only separated by 750 miles. It may as well have been an ocean.
Two young families, one living in suburban Boston and the other living in rural Indiana, did not have much in common.
Despite a challenging childhood with a mother who – at the very least – had “issues” the sisters remained close and cherished each other.
Having witnessed other pairings or trios of sisters fight over small things, I still am in awe of both of them, who managed to sustain a dear love over oceans and half a continent.
Now reaching her mid-80s, my aunt is still a beautiful woman. She has pink skin and dark, raven-colored hair like her own mother, Alma, who was reported to be a great beauty. My aunt only now shows hints of grey.
My mother was a petite brunette whose hair turned grey early and then mellowed into a striking white, like her mother.
When I was a child, I viewed my aunt as an exotic movie star, someone who had traveled with multiple trunks on an ocean liner from New York to Europe. She was a talented painter, a wonderful cook, so beautiful and articulate.
When we visited her Massachusetts home, I loved her art books and her Turkish rugs and how very different from all the women I knew in rural Indiana. If Boston seemed a million miles away, Turkey was not even imaginable.
When my mother died last February, my aunt who has health concerns was unable to make the difficult flights and connections to Indiana for the funeral. Her eldest son, whom my own brother and I view almost as another sibling, came and stood with us in the receiving line.
Within days of my mother passing, I promised my father I would take him to visit my aunt in Boston. She is too physically infirm to travel a great distance.
Last June my dad and I flew out and spent five days with my aunt. We were delighted to spend time with my aunt’s three other sons who all live within thirty miles of her.
My brother visited her last weekend.
I’ve wanted to write about this for months. When my brother decided to visit my aunt, I decided to wait until his return. I wanted to learn what his reaction was, seeing his mother’s only sister after our mother is no longer here.
My brother and I had the same reaction to our visit, with slight differences. The first site of my aunt, her physical presence, was difficult because I could see her baby sister in her. Until we arrived, in my own selfish ways I never thought she might have the same reaction to me. I have my mother’s slender hands – my aunt does not.
My aunt saw in my brother her father’s hands and height. Last June I saw my grandfather’s personality and gentleness in my aunt’s third son.
What my brother and I agreed upon – and is a gift in a way – is that my aunt’s eyes are a window into her father’s eyes, and my mother’s. My grandfather and my mother are both, I believe according to my faith tradition, on the ultimate high flight as the poet said.
When someone you dearly love leaves, grief sometimes masks the gifts that remain. But there is much that remains – those are the ties that bind if we are willing to look for them.
by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds…and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of…wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up, the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor even eagle flew.
And while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space …
… put out my hand, and touched the face of God.